The Church of Armenia by Malachia Bedros Ormanian
The Church of Armeniaby Malachia Bedros Ormanian



A history of the Armenian Church, written by one of its most eminent representatives, is a publication which should unquestionably be useful. It has been the aim of the author to place before the public a true picture of this oriental Christianity, with its doctrines, its creeds, its hierarchy; and at the same time to present a popular treatise on its politics and social life. There is no attempt made here to write a full history of Armenia since its conversion to Christianity, as this would have entailed a voluminous mass of documentary evidence, ill-suited to the ordinary reader whose attention is claimed. The intention of the author is, therefore, to confine himself to the most salient and striking incidents, and to those features which are most suitable for giving a clear insight into this most interesting community of the East.

The history gains additional interest from the fact that it come from the pen of Mgr. Ormanian, a child of the East, who occupied for twelve years the patriarchal see at Constantinople. In this work, therefore, we have not the hackneyed literary production of a writer who has copied from others. He sacrifices nothing for the sake of the picturesque; he deals purely with facts and impressions. We feel, too, the absolute good faith of the author; and that he writes not only with conviction, but with an independence of thought surprising to the European reader, who is little accustomed to have ecclesiastical matters thus dealt with.

We should, however, be mistaken did we suppose that the views expressed by the author are in any sense peculiar to him. In the essentially democratic constitution of the Armenian Church there is inherent a liberality of thought; and the first thing which strikes us when we study the framework of her society is, that her clergy do not form a separate class. The nation and the Church are one and the same thing. Between them there is no conflict of ascendancy or authority; indeed, there is no antagonism whatever. And we must in nowise imagine that because she is governed by a patriarch, the Armenian nation lives under the domination of the clergy. In the course of this work we shall see that all the actions of this high ecclesiastical dignitary are subjected to a detailed control, and that the administration of the Church is entirely in the hands of the laity. ‘In Turkey,’ writes the author, ‘the Church is managed by a council composed exclusively of laymen, who are elected by the parishioners.’ Further on he adds, ‘that the participation of the lay element is asserted in the first place by their electing the ministers of worship.’ We should likewise notice that this clergy, who are elected and are controlled in their actions, exist only on alms and voluntary gifts, and are thus placed completely in the power of the congregation. Thus the laity, as part of the Church, and in combination with the clergy, form a closely knit body corporate as a nation. In short, the two elements are so well blended and intermingled, that the term National Church would seem to have been framed with special applicability to this nation.

It is the more to be justified, as the nation, ever since her conversion to Christianity, has awakened to a consciousness of herself. Constituted in the fourth century on the basis of faith, she has never since then ceased to blend her destiny with that of her Church. This peculiarity reveals itself in a wonderful system of organization and conservation. In the Church, where he seek asylum, the Armenian has found not only a rallying center, but an ark, wherein is faithfully preserved all that links him to the past: traditions, customs, language, and literature. It is, doubtless, to this strict identity of interest, to this harmony of feeling with the lay element, that this Church owes her ideas of tolerance and liberalism. She owes them also to even more profound reasons.

She believes that no Church, however great in herself, represents the whole of Christendom; that each one, taken singly, can be mistaken, and to the Universal Church alone belongs the privilege of infallibility in her dogmatic decisions. But if it is incumbent that dogmas remain intact, because they are, as it were, the threads which connect the present with the original beginnings, on the other hand, the Church’s advance in doctrine can in no way be hindered. This latter is but the expression of the time being, and subject, therefore, to modification; for it is not possible to evade the law of change. If I am not mistaken, all progress centers in this theory.

The principle of conservation, as the role of the Eastern Churches, is well expressed by the author when he says that these primitive Churches constituted themselves in regular order by nationalities. The reason for this separate grouping was determined, doubtless, by the necessity there existed of evangelizing the people in their own tongue. Alphabets had to be invented for languages which had none, in order to render the sacred books accessible to the people, and thus came the first step for the unlettered races towards an intellectual life. Such was the case with the Armenians in the fifth century, and with the Slavs in the ninth century. Had it not been for this circumstance, it is probable that the greater part of these racial elements would have degenerated into heterogeneous masses without adhesion, and so have been absorbed by conquering hordes. But in order to maintain permanency, they had but to gather round their Churches, under whose aegis they have lived, awaiting the providential hour when they would regain their rights. In this way a host of nationalities are disclosed which the world looked upon as dead. In the eighteenth century the Greeks were an ignored race, and no one then thought the peasantry of this name would ever take shape in the solidarity of an independent nation. But since their emancipation, public writers and statesmen no longer recognize in the East any but orthodox Greeks. In a still greater measure were ignored the Slavs of the Danube and of the Balkans, who were commonly taken for the latter (Greeks), on whom the attention of the European world was suddenly riveted in 1821. The Greeks themselves contributed to keep up this illusion with more than indiscreet complacency. ‘Under the denomination of orthodox Greeks are comprised all Christians, in whatever race they may belong, who are living under the Turkish scepter,’ wrote Pitzipios in 1856. The great movement of nationalities, as it has been called, has dispersed these illusions. Awakened by contact with Western thought, the national sentiment, which had lain dormant in the soul of these races, was not less keen than that among the Italians and the Germans. They caught at a revival of national life as if it had never undergone an interruption, renewing their traditions and assimilating all that seemed to favor their development. Like the Seven Sleepers of the legend, they awoke without suspecting that they were emerging from a sleep in which they had been wrapped for several centuries. What is no less surprising is that the Armenian people, notwithstanding their wide dispersion throughout the world, are sill bound together by a community of sentiment and character.

It is for these reasons that the question of religion does not cease to be vital among the Christian communities of the East. There the spell of religion is ever great, and the modern spirit has scarcely touched it; and even if the younger generation is less docile than formerly to the guidance of the clergy nevertheless no one dreams of breaking the covenant which the nation has entered into with the Church. I have often had a very clear impression that even when he loses his faith, the Armenian never ceases to continue loyal to his Church. He instinctively feels that if she becomes undermined, all will crumble.

If, since its conversion to Christianity, this nation has suffered an arrest of development, this tendency has been due to historical circumstances of an exceptional character. Isolated on her high plateau, on one of the great highways which give passage to migratory hordes and conquering bands, the country of Armenia has been a tilt-yard wherein all old Asiatic feuds have been settled. Invasion has succeeded invasion, and pillage has followed slaughter, ever since the seventh century. In short, her history is but one long martyrology, to use the author’s expression. Armenia had been compelled to submit to force, but in yielding under the weight of an unparalleled fate, she has none the less been able, while saving her very life, to rescue from shipwreck what was essential; that is to say, those elements of a regeneration which have been of advantage in every way, and which will add efficacy to do powers of reorganized Turkey.

We know that the Turks, under the domination of their theocratic principle, made scarcely any change in the condition of the people whom they subdued. They contented themselves by the limitations imposed on them in the Koran, which directs that believers should allow the conquered to retain their possessions on condition of their paying the capitation tax (Kharatj).  Turning this arrangement to account, the Christians organized themselves as best they could and lived their own appropriate lives, while remaining in subjection to the power with which they were incorporated.

The patriarch, who received his investiture from the Porte, became the lawful head of the nation (Millet bashi). As the chief, responsible to the Sovereign Power, he looked after the collection of the taxes, which was carried out through the medium of agents and under his warrant. Masters of litigation were brought before his court, whether such were civil or criminal; that is, those affecting marriage and social status as citizens. The Greeks were subject to a similar system. Indeed, Mohammed II imposed on the Armenians just those arrangements which he had made with the patriarch Gennadius.

We shall see that this close union of the Armenians with their Church in nowise impeded their evolution in the direction of modern thought. In spite of their uncertain position, their social and civilizing agency has been more considerable than would be supposed. It is chiefly through their medium that their Muslim countrymen gained in the first instance, their connection with the thoughts and customs of the West. It was among them that the sultan Mahmoud found the leading auxiliaries for his reform, of which he was the relentless originator. He knew how to used their business aptitude, their skill in the management of finance; and, had it not been for official irregularities, the East would have been able to turn to better account the commercial and industrial genius of this people.

After the promulgation of the Hatt-i-Sherif of 1839, which was the charter of enfranchisement of the Christians and the first step towards the secularization of the State, their first thought was to make themselves fall in with some of the ideas and methods of modern Europe. Above all, they endeavored to reduce the powers of the patriarch in the interest of the lay element. It was a harking back to the spirit of their Church’s constitution, which excluded all ecclesiastical preponderance in the domain of civil rights. In 1847, in spite of opposition from the moneyed class, two Committees were established to sit with the patriarch; one Committee, composed of the clergy, for the supervision of the acts of the spiritual administration; and the other, a lay body, to concern itself with civil matters.

At length, in 1860, the nation, emboldened by this success, obtained, with the concurrence of the Porte, a constitution, the fundamental idea of which was based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people. It is true that it settle private interests, yet it caused none the less an important change in the customs of the East. By this constitution, the patriarch was recognized as the head of the nation, and as the community’s official intermediary with the Porte. This important point of the national statute could not possible have been modified without jeopardizing the remaining privileges that had been granted; but the difficulty was overcome by subordinating the decision of that dignitary to the control of the general assembly. By the help of these arrangements a prolific crop of social work was the immediate outcome, which was a certain proof of the eagerness of the masses for an amelioration of their status. Its first concern was to organize public education on a free basis. In the statement of general principles, it is stated that the nation resolves that all children of both sexes, of whatever condition, should, without exception, recive the benefits of education, and should at least be initiated in essential knowledge. This was just the syllabus which the French Republic was destined to adopt some twenty years later for elementary education. To provide for the upkeep of this education, the nation, which already paid its share of the State taxes, was obliged to inflict on itself an additional burden. This was all the more heavy owing to the fact that the contributions likewise provided for the support of a large number of hospitals and provident institutions.

These social advantages, which the tolerant rule of Abdul-Aziz had rendered possible, could not fail to excite the distrust of his suspicious successor. Abdul-Hamid looked with displeasure on the strange paadox of a liberal system flourishing under the shadow of his despotic rule; of the Armenian, subdued and ground down like an Ottoman subject, but free as far as he was a member of his Church. Such an anomaly could not be tolerated. Under a ban of suspicion at once in Turkey and in Russian, the Armenians ceased to have a single moment of tranquility.

Accordingly, no people hailed with more sincere joy the rule of liberty which was forcibly inaugurated by the Young Turk party in July, 1908. They saw in this unexpected event not only a guarantee against the excesses of an arbitrary rule, but the sanction of a progress which was already to be found in their principles, and towards which they had a natural bent. There was here a community of ideas which could contribute potently to the cause of conciliation: which, in fact, has happened. But the new government has tried to accomplish still more. It has felt that the moment had come for doing away with, as unnecessary, the privileges of religious communities. It has considered that, with the advent of a new rule, it was fitting to apply new conditions. The Armenians are, undoubtedly, far from averse to sharing in this view. As they do not entertain any plans of peculiarly selfish nature, they are not inclined to place any obstacle in the path of conciliation. They know that the de facto situation for today in inconsistent with the fundamental principle of parliamentary government, and so long as this inconsistency remains, it is not possible to say that the legislative authority rests on the will of the people; but still the work of union must find its fulfillment on a footing of equality. Without ignoring the importance of the results already attained, the Christians look forward to a further effort on the part of the government. If it would direct the evolution to its proper fulfillment, it is necessary so to trim the ship of State in the direction of a secularization which should be as complete as possible. It is then that the hard and fast barriers that separate the various intermixed peoples will fall of themselves; for, if religion has in itself the certainty of continuance, it has at the same time morally rendered some antagonistic to others. A general movement of reform can alone lead to this result: its first condition is-and it should in no case be overlooked-a preparation of character by the schools and by the practice of liberty.

It is only at this price that they will be able to unite together and form a homogeneous body which will make the common fatherland great and prosperous.

Bertrand Bareilles

Constantinople  June 1, 1910